Site Design: Designing in Quality

Quality isn't something you apply to a finished web site like wood sealer on a new deck: a good site has quality designed in and built in. Any particular site will have its own unique scale and meaning for "quality", because quality is a measurement of a complex relationship of goals, purposes, audience needs, execution of design, and other issues specific to that site. I can't define web site quality in such a way that it maps to all web sites or reflects the views of all customers, but I can say that certain attitudes and decisions on the parts of web building teams will have a noticeable positive effect on the perceived quality of any web site. While the following points are not the express responsibility of quality assurance, QA does speak for the user, and should stand in for the user during decisions that will have a strong effect on the user experience. Quality assurance should work to get the site going in a good direction from the get-go.

Form an empowered team

A site requires resources to create and maintain, and your team should

be your most valuable resources. Use job descriptions that make sense, and use job descriptions that are appropriate to the task. Here are a couple of good articles on finding and keeping good web teams:

Decide on - and agree to - a plan

Any company doing business on the web should have a mission statement, or statement of direction. It is very difficult to map out future work and strategies without a clear message from on high about where the company intends to go. One of these statements will provide some stability from which the web site can springboard forward. Every serious web site must have some explicit goals describing just what the site is about - what's the purpose of the site? who is the site's audience? How will success be measured? The best intentions and a cool design aren't going to sustain your development and production processes if you are missing a concrete statement of your goals for the site and what it should do. Without a clear direction and goals, a web site cannot deliver a consistent, steady message to customers; hardly a platform for quality.

Identify and understand your customers

Unless you're building a vanity home page, even more important than having a product to sell or a story to tell is having somebody to sell or tell it to. You must define who your audience is; if possible, gather feedback and involve your audience in your design process. Read more about understanding your audience.

Architect your information space for the user

Information architecture describes the organization of your information -- whether it happens to be the products you sell or the articles you make available -- and the way your site is structured to facilitate access to this information. Will your information be accessed through a search function, or through a table of contents? Will users routinely need to click through several levels of information to get to what they want to see? Study your audience's interaction with your site's information space, and design the presentation of the information to accommodate the users' modes of interaction. Make it easy to find stuff.

Define the Requirements and Specifications

Requirements detail the objectives for a web site project; requirements describe what the web site is supposed to do, what functions should be created, what tasks the user should be able to accomplish. Specifications explain how the requirements are supposed be implemented and completed. These two kinds of instructions are essential to the successful completion of any web site project. [Read more about the importance of requirements and specifications.]

Document your standards and styles

Standards are essential to the quality of any site: standards tell coders and writers what the acceptable ranges of performance are. Standards allow you to set a definition of "quality" for your site, give you a landmark to measure performance against, and give you a measure you can refine as you better learn what your users need and what your team can provide. [Read more about the importance of standards.] Style is the way your site presents its unique way of looking at things; style is the "voice" your site uses to address its audience. If your site needs a specific voice and tone in order to fulfill its relationship with the user correctly, then codify and document the elements of style that comprise this voice. [Read more about style and style guides.]

Design an interface for the user

Interface design is a topic full of dogma and mandates. Rules abound for the correct way to place navigation elements on the page, where to place branding, how link color should contrast with background color. . . many capable designers and critics coming from various communication media have contrasting views, sensibilities and agendas for how to create an interface. Quality assurance doesn't focus so much on the best/coolest/most powerful interface so much as on answering the questions "does this interface meet the users needs?" and "does this interface adhere to the standards and styles defined for the site?" From Jennifer Fleming (Web Navigation: Designing the User Experience; O'Reilly, 1998):

In Navigation design, it's cruel and unusual punishment to offer chaos instead of guidance, self-expression instead of shared communication. Interface design, like many areas of design, is service-oriented -- it's in service to the message, the client, the users, and the medium. That makes the work of an interface designer a serious challenge, since it is much harder to understand others' needs than it is to know your own tastes. There may not always be glory in it, but service is the hallmark of good design. Study your audience's interaction with your site's navigation scheme, and watch how users go about finding stuff on your site. Make it easy to move around your site. Follow some common sense rules for interaction design.